The rest of us

“The Rest of us,” by Stephen Birmingham, is subtitled “The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews.” Birmingham wrote previously about the Sephardic Jewish immigration around the time of the American Revolution, and about the German Jews who arrived in the mid-1800s. This covers the third wave of Jewish immigration to the United States, the immigration of eastern European Jews starting in the late 19th century. These subsequent immigrants arriving from the Pale of Settlement were regarded by the by-then established German immigrants as an embarrassment to American Jewry: they not only had poor clothes and hygiene, but were religiously conservative and indifferent to the ostensibly genteel manners of the larger Christian community and the established Jewish community who aspired to assimilate.

For the first 80 pages, I was beginning to get the impression that the book was about the rise of eastern European Jews in New York City, but with the appearance of motion pictures, some wealthier members of the community moved west to California to found the film industry. By 1920, what had been an Eastern European Jewish ghetto on the lower East side of Manhattan had been dramatically improved, and many of its former residents moved to Riverside Drive, and eventually to the New Jersey Palisades, Scarsdale, Long Island and Beverly Hills. Through intelligence, connections, tenacity and chutzpah, these immigrants who arrived with little or nothing rose to become pillars of their community and in some cases, national and international stars. Their rags-to-riches stories enliven and personalize the narrative. For example:

Szmuel Gelbfisz was born in Warsaw. He ran away from home, hoping to make his way to America, but was stopped by a German border Guard. He escaped across the border to Germany by jumping out of a bathroom window and swimming across a river. Penniless in Germany, he managed to find friends who gave him the money to travel to England. Via England, he shipped to Canada and crossed to border to the US. Ended up in NYC, where he eventually went into business with his brother-in-law in penny arcades in the early days of motion pictures. Since his name proved unpronounceable in the US, he changed it to Samuel Goldfish. Eventually, he went west to Los Angeles, where he partnered with the Selwyns to form Goldwyn Pictures. He later changed his name to Goldwyn because people in the theater laughed at the name Samuel Goldfish. Eventually, the name Sam Goldwyn became synonymous with ‘motion picture mogul.’

Other notable Eastern Jewish immigrants from this period who later attained fame and whose stories are recounted in detail here: David Sarnoff, Meyer Lansky (born Maier Suchowljansky), Helena Rubinstein and Irving Berlin (born Isidore Baline).

“Unlike the stolid German Jews who had come to America intent on bettering their lot, because America was “the land of golden opportunity,” because there were nineteenth-century fortunes to be made and they fully expected to make them, the Russians had come for an entirely different set of reasons. They had come to save their lives, and their children’s lives. Success had been the last thing on their minds, much less success on the scale of a Sam Goldwyn, a Sam Bronfman [who eventually owned Seagrams], a David Sarnoff [who eventually became president of RCA], or even a Meyer Lansky.” (p. 225)

As Hitler came to power, many Jews in the US were looking for leadership to challenge the Nazis. As it happened, Joseph P. Kennedy, the US ambassador to Great Britain convinced the Jewish film companies to stand down, arguing that American would support an ‘English war’ but not a ‘Jewish war.’ An attempt by screenwriter Ben Hecht and David O. Selznick to raise money for a Jewish Army to fight in Europe—England wouldn’t accept Jews in the military—failed miserably. Complicating the efforts by the film industry was the effort by right-wing politicians who accused Hollywood of pro-war propaganda to involve the US military overseas. Investigations into these accusations were only stopped by the attack on Pearl Harbor, which mooted the question.

Nevertheless, the book recounts many examples of largess from successful eastern European Jewish immigrants. One that stood out to me was an anecdote about the mobster Meyer Lansky—who owned a number of casinos in Havana—demanding that the Cuban government accept a boatload of European Jewish refugees. He paid Cuba $500 for each refugee admitted.

Sadly, one consequence of American entry into WWII was the submergence of Jewish identity. Birmingham tells the story of Sam Goldwyn recruiting Danny Kaye for a film, only to decide that Kaye looked “too Jewish.” After many takes and much agonizing, Goldwyn hit on the solution of having Kaye’s hair dyed blond. Suddenly, he looked Nordic instead of Jewish; a success for a Jewish artist and a Jewish film producer but a setback for Jewish acceptance in American popular culture. Birmingham cites many more examples of ethnic revisionism in novels and plays during the ‘40s that erased Jewish identity. As Henry Popkin wrote in Commentary magazine: “When Hitler forced Americans to take anti-Semitism seriously, it was apparently felt that the most eloquent reply that could be made was a dead silence.”

With the end of WWII, Palestine was a battlefield between Arabs and Jews. On top of that, the British were unwilling to relinquish control of their WWI mandate to an autonomous state of Israel. Meyer Lansky and Benny “Bugsy” Siegel’s bodyguard Mickey Cohen helped support the violent Zionist paramilitary organization Irgun Tzevai Leumi under Menachem Begin by diverting shipments of surplus military armaments from Europe to Israel. In later years, Lansky continued to support Israel financially, both from personal funds and by turning over his hotels and casinos for Bonds for Israel rallies.
After much bloodshed, the British government ceded control, and in May, 1948, the state of Israel was founded. By then, virtually none of the successful eastern European Jewish immigrants to the US were interested in moving to Israel. While it was a comfort to know that Israel was there for them if they needed it, they preferred their adopted home.

By the late 1940s, the German-Jewish leadership in New York City had been eclipsed by the massively larger eastern European Jewish immigrant population. Little Orthodox synagogues founded by the Russian Jewish immigrants were being replaced by Reform temples, established by the German Jews and now embraced by the increasingly affluent, cosmopolitan and assimilation-minded Russian immigrants. Assimilation didn’t necessarily mean conversion to Christianity; often, it just met joining the Christian clubs, living in the Christian neighborhoods and marrying Christian spouses. By the third generation, many descendants of eastern European Jewish immigrants had all but abandoned the faith and culture of their ancestors.

I share a bit of this eastern European Jewish heritage. Both my paternal grandparents immigrated from Ukraine. My paternal great-grandfather and his son, my paternal grandfather, shipped out from Odessa for New York City in the first decade of the 20th century, then left there for the Jewish colony in Argentina established by Baron de Hirsch, where my grandfather grew up. Eventually, they both returned to New York City, where my great grandfather managed apartment buildings. My grandfather found a career in banking and my dad grew up in Brooklyn. While my paternal grandparents were Jewish and my father was bar mitzvahed, they weren’t observant. I was raised Roman Catholic and relatively unaware of my eastern European Jewish heritage as a child. Now, especially with events in Ukraine dominating the headlines, I’ve acquired a curiosity about my eastern European Jewish roots and the culture of a people I’m linked to historically.

I found this history a pleasure to read. The historical and biographical narratives are extensively leavened with anecdotes, both dramatic and humorous. This book was published in 1984, so some of the names may be unfamiliar to readers born in the last 20 years, but I would recommend it to anyone of any age or ethnic background interested in cultural history.